by Debbie Coleman-Topi
The Platte County R-3 School Board unanimously approved more than $2.25 million in expenditures at a board meeting Thursday night, further fueling a reputation, at least among some district patrons, for high rates of spending.
An analysis of the district's debt shows that the district has twice the debt load as the county of Platte--the county in which the district is located—and, one of the highest debt loads of any school district in Missouri.
The unanimous spending votes were for 10 district-wide projects, ranging from the smallest charge at $18,570 for moving expenses due to renovations at one school building, to the largest expenditure of $499,000 for equipment and furniture for use in the building (see accompanying chart for a list of all expenditures approved at the meeting.)
Kirby Holden, a parent and district patron, feels so strongly about district spending that he operates a website and Facebook page that often is critical of what he considers excessive district spending. His website is plattecountyr3facts.com.
Holden calculates that, at around $85 million, the district has the largest debt load per student among all 518 public school districts in the state of Missouri (number excludes charter schools).
Meanwhile, information from the office of the Platte County Auditor indicates the county's debt, which includes parks, sewers and Neighborhood Improvement Districts (NID) and Tax Increment Financing Districts (TIF), is about $44 million, or roughly half of the school district's debt.
The school district’s debt was calculated using information listed on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) website, including numbers of students, to calculate debt load rates, Holden said.
Holden's website states that he “can find no other district in the state of Missouri that has a debt load even close to that of PCR3,” adding that the district spends about $8,000 more per student than other districts.
Holden adds that most debt is due to lease purchase financing and includes high interest rates and yearly costs.
Board of Education President Sharon Sherwood said a comparison of debt per student is not an accurate way to assess district-wide debt.
“We really can't compare because districts have different debt loads at different times,” she said, adding that the Platte County district is growing and some other districts are not. The school district’s website lists total numbers of students as 3,888, which is updated through 2015.
In an interview, Superintendent Dr. Mike Reik said the district’s enrollment is growing by about one percent per year.
However, Holden said the calculations on his website in regard to school debt includes growing districts, even some which are experiencing more growth than Platte County School District.
In an emailed response, Reik said he's not sure where the district ranks in regard to debt per student, saying: “…knowing this information serves little (if any) utility. Debt issuance, and particularly debt per student, is a measure that is unique to a particular set of facts in each district (such as total enrollment, growth over time, etc.)”
Reik said that the district is one of the fastest-growing in the state, yet still small by suburban standards, allowing for debt in order to manage growth.
His email also added that using lease-purchase, for which some have criticized the district, rather than bonds “has virtually no impact on our debt to student ratio,” he wrote.
“Actually, given our unique set of circumstances a sound argument could be forwarded (and has) that issuing lease purchase bonds when interest rates are low and bonding capacity is limited helps keep our total debt lower than if we waited until we had the necessary bonding capacity due to construction cost escalation and the inevitable increase in interest rates,” Reik wrote.
At the board meeting, some approved expenditures included those designed to manage district growth, including expanding Pathfinder Elementary, located in the southern attendance area. The plan will add 14 classrooms, a multi-purpose room, additional parking and will allow for an additional 280 students.
Paxton School, which currently serves fourth and fifth graders in the northern area of the district, will become part of the high school.
A new, 700-student elementary school known as Compass Elementary will allow for the closure of Rising Star Elementary, which currently serves kindergartners.
Other expenditures approved at Thursday’s meeting included $443,000 to replace artificial turf on the high school football field.
The district spent around $525,000 in 2005 to replace the football field's grass surface with artificial turf. The new field covering was controversial at the time, among some patrons and school board members. It passed by a 5-2 vote of the board in a January 2005 meeting.
The turf is in need of replacement due to a breakdown of fibers that, left untreated, could result in player injuries, Reik said at the meeting.
The plan calls for replacing 50 tons of rubber that comprise the impact-absorbing material in the turf, according to Daniel Foye, project manager for the Manning Construction Company.
“We've gotten a couple more years out of this,” Foye told the board, adding that the artificial turf fields are designed to last less than 10 years. He said the turf's fibers have broken down due to use, limiting their ability to absorb impact.
Reik told the board that in his view the artificial field was initially, and continues to be, a wise choice.
“This is a winning proposition in terms of investment,” he said at the meeting.
In an interview this week, Sherwood said the turf has lived up to its reputation because it's being used by more than just high school football players. She said the field also is used by soccer and football teams of all ages. She added that there's a high cost to maintaining real grass fields, including the cost of watering and other expenditures.
District patron Janet Stark said she attends school board meetings to monitor how the district is using taxpayer dollars.
“They're just going more and more in debt and putting that on the backs of our children,” Stark said.
But she said the problem of district spending ultimately rests with the patrons, many of whom she believes have become apathetic and complacent.
“Unless more people feel the schools are not spending wisely, and are willing to speak up, it's just going to continue to go this way,” Stark said.